BOSTON, Mass. (SHNS)–The president of the University of Massachusetts and chancellor of its Amherst campus appear to have moved unilaterally in April as they agreed to facilitate the state’s bulk purchase of abortion pills in response to a federal court decision in Texas.
“We are writing to confidentially inform you of a rapidly developing issue that will likely attract significant media attention early next week,” President Martin Meehan and Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy wrote to members of the UMass Board of Trustees in a memo obtained by the News Service through a public records request.
Meehan and Subbaswamy wrote their memo on Saturday, April 8, the day after a U.S. District Court judge in Texas suspended approval of the abortion drug mifepristone. The duo informed trustees that UMass Amherst brass had been “approached by Governor Healey’s team” three days earlier “about the possibility of the campus purchasing a year’s worth of this medicine (15,000 doses).”
“This will help the Commonwealth effectively respond to Friday’s Texas federal court ruling suspending the FDA approval of the medication but still allowing the medication to be prescribed if available,” they wrote, adding that they were “fully supportive of this effort.”
“We are pleased to answer the Governor’s call to provide this vital assistance to the Commonwealth,” Meehan and Subbaswamy wrote in the memo.
The board has met twice since then, on April 12 and June 9, though the bulk order of mifepristone did not feature in either meeting agenda, nor in the open session minutes of the April meeting.
The massive shipment — an estimated year’s supply of the pill for Bay Staters — was a major component of the Healey administration’s response to the federal ruling, along with an executive order aimed at preserving legal access to the drug.
UMass Amherst was tabbed to order and receive the 15,000 doses, with the promise of state reimbursement, because of its unique status as “the only public entity in the Commonwealth with state REMS (risk evaluation and mitigation strategy) certification, which allows the campus to purchase the medication,” according to the memo. The campus health care center in Amherst started prescribing the mifepristone and misoprostol abortion medications in 2022.
Advocates this summer have been preparing for a “showdown” as the federal case works its way toward the U.S. Supreme Court following a U.S. Appeals Court decision that would partially limit access to the pill. At stake is mifepristone’s approval by the Food and Drug Administration, which dates back more than 20 years. The drug is still available while the court case pends.
The U.S. Department of Justice last week asked the Supreme Court to take up the case, which CNN reported could mean a controversial election-year decision “putting the court in the middle of US presidential and congressional politics.”
The News Service filed a public records request this summer with the governor’s office seeking documents that could shed light on how state government assembled its fast-paced response to the mifepristone court ruling. No such records were released by Healey’s office, which instead provided emails documenting how a press conference was organized after the strategy had already been developed.
In a public records request filed with UMass and the university’s Amherst campus, the News Service subsequently sought emails mentioning “mifepristone” between April 1 and April 10, sent to or from Meehan, Subbaswamy, Executive Director for Communications John Hoey, Chief Operating Officer Susan Kelly, General Counsel Gerry Leone, Vice President for External Affairs David McDermott, and the Amherst chancellor’s chief of staff Rolanda Burney.
The university handed over around 90 documents, largely press clippings, newsletters, and emails sent in preparation for the news conference held the following Monday on the State House steps.
The UMass president’s office claimed an exemption on “some” of the emails turned up in the search, citing “the long-held and established common law protections for attorney-client privileged communications.” The Amherst campus, which only provided four files — three copies of the same email, and one copy of an attachment — did not mention any exemptions or withheld documents.
A host of government officials and reproductive health advocates gathered on the State House steps on April 10 to talk about their response plans — five days after Healey talked to UMass Amherst about the big mifepristone shipment, just three days after the judge ruled in Texas, and two days after Meehan and Subbaswamy alerted the university trustees to the school’s involvement in the plan.
“Throughout our history, the university has on occasion been asked to mobilize its resources to address a critical need in the commonwealth of Massachusetts,” Meehan told the crowd and the cameras. “Most recently, it was during the COVID-19 pandemic, when we erected field hospitals and vaccine clinics and sent medical personnel to the frontlines of that crucial effort. Last week, Gov. Healey called upon UMass Amherst to mobilize — this time to help protect safe and legal medical abortions for women in Massachusetts. I applaud the Governor and her administration for the swift, decisive action.”
Subbaswamy retired from his chancellor post June 30, transitioning into a new role as the interim senior vice president for academic and student affairs and equity for all five UMass campuses. Javier Reyes took the helm of the flagship campus July 1.